After celebrating his second anniversary as Arsenal manager on Monday, Mikel Arteta can settle in for Christmas with his team in the top four of the Premier League.
A convincing 4-1 win at Leeds United on Saturday was the Gunners’ third victory in a row the league, with young stars Gabriel Martinelli, Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith-Rowe all finding the net.
However, it wouldn’t be Arsenal without a shadow looming over any potential optimism, and Arteta’s ongoing problem of what to do with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang rumbles on.
Having recently stripped the Gabon international of the club captaincy following “his latest disciplinary breach”, the Arsenal boss must now decide whether he can bring Aubameyang back into the fold or must cut his losses and try to move the striker on in January.
But where did it all go wrong for the 32-year-old, broadly considered to be one of the best forwards around in recent years?
Stats Perform takes a look at the player, the numbers, and whether the north London club might actually be better off without their main marksman.
Heir apparent to Henry
It felt like a statement of intent.
After spending big money to bring Alexandre Lacazette to the club from Lyon ahead of the 2017-18 season, Arsenal decided to splash out even more to add Aubameyang at the end of the following January transfer window.
Having scored 138 goals in 209 games at Borussia Dortmund, plenty was expected of him upon arrival in the Premier League, particularly as his style of play, pace and goalscoring abilities gave more than a hint of a similarity to Gunners legend Thierry Henry.
Aubameyang even took Henry’s iconic number 14 shirt, but unlike the Frenchman, he needed no settling in period as he bagged 10 goals in his first 13 league appearances for the club.
Only Mohamed Salah (13) scored more Premier League goals in that time, while of players who took at least 10 shots, only Romelu Lukaku (80.0 per cent) had a better shooting accuracy percentage than his 79.17.
Arsenal finished sixth in the league that season, 12 points off the top four and 37 points behind champions Manchester City. It would prove to be Arsene Wenger’s last campaign, and if there was going to be real progress, new boss Unai Emery would need Aubameyang to have an exceptional first full season in England.
That’s exactly what he got, with the former Saint-Etienne striker scoring 22 goals in 36 appearances, winning the Premier League Golden Boot jointly with Liverpool pair Salah and Sadio Mane.
What had made this all the more impressive was that Aubameyang had a better minutes per goal ratio than both, registering one on average every 124 minutes, with only City’s Sergio Aguero (118 minutes per goal) performing better of those who scored at least 10 goals.
Arsenal did improve in 2018-19, finishing seven points better off and one place higher, but they were still a point shy of rivals Tottenham in that elusive top four spot.
Aubameyang was also potent in cup competitions, bagging nine more, including eight on the way to the Europa League final, but the Gunners were soundly beaten by Chelsea in Baku.
Despite the agony of missing out twice on Champions League qualification, there was little doubt by this point that Aubameyang was the talisman of the team and the player Emery would have to build around to have any hope of success.
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) January 31, 2018
After Granit Xhaka was stripped of the captaincy following an angry confrontation with fans when coming off in the 2-2 home draw with Crystal Palace in October 2019, Aubameyang was appointed as his successor, following Henry’s path once again as the star man expected to lead by example.
The player seemed to appreciate the significance, posting on Twitter: “Arsenal has a great history of wonderful captains like Patrick Vieira and Tony Adams. It is a privilege to follow in their footsteps and I will honour the armband by doing my very best on and off the pitch.”
Less than a week later, the man who gave him the armband was sacked, with Emery eventually replaced by Arteta in the Spaniard’s first shot at senior management.
The extra responsibility and change of boss did not seem to slow Aubameyang down, scoring 22 league goals again, with only Jamie Vardy (23) grabbing more. However, the team’s form was very much going in the wrong direction.
Arsenal did lift the FA Cup, with their captain scoring both goals against Chelsea to exact revenge for the previous season’s Europa League defeat, but faltered in the league, finishing eighth on just 56 points, 10 off the top four, behind Wolves in seventh and nearly twice as close to relegated Bournemouth as they were to champions Liverpool.
Could Arteta get the best out of both player and team?
The notion that Arsenal could only succeed if Aubameyang was firing on all cylinders was beginning to be tested. He appeared to be doing all he reasonably could, but the overall form of the team did not seem to improve.
With a former player now in charge in Arteta, who had learned his trade under the guidance of Pep Guardiola while at City, would he also want to build around their goalscorer or try to change the mentality of a team that seemed to lack ideas if giving the ball to Aubameyang didn’t work?
Although he had scored plenty, Aubameyang’s minutes per goal average had lengthened again, going from 106 minutes in his first half-season to 124 in his first full season and 143 in the next.
The 2020-21 campaign was strange for everyone, with most games played behind closed doors. Arsenal finished eighth again but with five more points than the previous year and only six behind the top four.
While it was not immediately clear to see if the Gunners had improved much, if at all, under Arteta, what was noticeable was that even if they had been treading water, they had done so without the same output from Aubameyang.
He managed only 10 goals in 29 games and his minutes per goal reached a sluggish 234, significantly slower than Lacazette, whose 13 goals came at an average of one every 148 minutes, and even Nicolas Pepe, who scored 10 at an average of one every 161 minutes.
As this season has progressed, Arteta has appeared to be trying to move away from reliance on his now former captain, who has managed just four goals in 14 league games and has not scored since the 3-1 home win against Aston Villa in October.
After another insipid performance in the 3-2 defeat at Manchester United at the start of December, Aubameyang was left on the bench for the 2-1 loss at Everton, only coming on late in the game, notably after fringe player Eddie Nketiah had already been introduced.
He was then missing from the squad entirely for the win against Southampton before Arteta confirmed that he had stripped the player of the captaincy as well following a disciplinary dispute.
“We have made this decision that unfortunately is a really tough one,” Arteta confirmed.
“If I had to choose, I wouldn’t like to be sitting here talking about it, but we had to do it.
“When we have to make that decision, it’s because it’s the right one to defend the interests of the football club.”
So, what next?
It would be harsh to make too much of a link, but Aubameyang has been missing from the Gunners’ past three squads and they have won all three games, scoring nine and conceding just once.
They are also the joint-fifth-highest scorers in the league (27), despite the lack of goals from their one-time main man.
Against an admittedly depleted Leeds side at the weekend, what was particularly notable was how Arsenal went at their hosts from all angles, hitting the target 11 times in the first half, with six different players taking these shots.
Lacazette played a hard-working and selfless role up front, while promising wide forwards Martinelli and Saka showed energy and ruthlessness.
Should Aubameyang leave in January, the assumption would be that it relates to his disciplinary issues, but tactically, could a move actually be beneficial to both parties as well?
The player looks like he needs a fresh start, possibly to a team who are not as reliant on him as Arsenal have been for most of his time there, while the manager seems to have deliberately reduced his team’s dependence on just one man.
Speaking on Monday, Arteta said of his anniversary: “It’s been an incredible journey, and I am really happy and proud with the company that I have had on the journey.
“Now it is a new phase where we start to rebuild the team, we take a very clear direction with how we want to move forward with the club, a real connection between the team and supporters, the ownership and board and I think now it is excitement.
“[There is] excitement to keep driving this project forward, to keep working with this really young squad, but ready to compete, to get better and take the club back to where it belongs.”
It has been an interesting first two years at the helm for Arteta, and it feels like whatever decision is made on the future of Aubameyang could well define the direction things take from here.
Aubameyang has occasionally donned a Spider-Man mask when celebrating in the past, but as far as his future at Emirates Stadium goes, there might be no way home.
58% – Since the start of last season, Arsenal have won 58% of their Premier League games without Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang featuring, earning on average 1.9 points per game. This is compared to a 47% win rate and 1.6 pts/game when the Gabonese forward plays in this time. Rolex. pic.twitter.com/xOXyJD2qwi
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 17, 2021
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